Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Master Preacher, Master of the Air WavesREV. JOHN BAPTIST KU, O. P.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a great preacher because he realized what is at the heart of the human struggle. He understood Who had the power to convict hearts. Here recorded are his reflections on preaching and inspiring anecdotes from his experience as an evangelist. On the day of his ordination, Sheen resolved to spend one hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament every day of his life, and this he did faithfully. This nourishment served as the very root of his prayer life and vocation.
Holy legend relates that when the angels first heard Adam speak, they fled in fear. For, they had only ever known the Father to speak a Word. Precious indeed is the gift of speech, and more precious, then, is the gift of preaching. For, preachers of the Word do not merely trade on words.
Herein lies the difference between an orator of the world and an orator of Christ. A man becomes a orator in the world by learning how to orate; a man becomes an orator of Christ by learning how to orare for is not the very meaning of the word oratory bound up with the word prayer? The first is a dealer in words; the second is a communicant with the Word. One is like a flint that kindles its own fires; the other is like a brand lit by the torch of God.
The greatest preacher ever was the Word Himself, Who willingly entered the human struggle. Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a great preacher because he realized what is at the heart of the human struggle.
Sin is not just a transgression of the law; no one cries because he has broken a speeding law. Every sin beats against Love.
Sheen preached the Word from the heart to the heart. While biographers can speculate on his influence on the world, including the likelihood that he made it possible for a Catholic to be president of the United States, God alone knows the effect of the Word preached in love by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Peter Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois, on May 8, 1895, to Newton and Delia Sheen. The name Fulton came from his maternal grandparents. When I was enrolled in the parochial school my grandfather Fulton was asked my name and he answered: Its Fulton. The choice of John at Confirmation completed the name, Fulton J. Sheen a name whose renown would span the globe.
Sheen recognized the important influence of his early education
The determining mold of my early life was the decision of my parents that each of their children should be well educated. This resolve was born not out of their own education, but their lack of it. My father never went beyond the third grade because his father felt he was needed on the farm. My mother had no more than an eighth-grade education at a time when there was one teacher for all the grades.
Sheen recounts a turning point in his life while he was attending college at St. Viators
A national examination was given to college students. The prize was a three-year university scholarship. I took the examination and won one of the scholarships. I was informed sometime during the summer and immediately went up to St. Viators College to see Father William J. Bergan, by now my dear friend. He was on the tennis court when I arrived. With great glee and delight I announced: Father Bergan, I won the scholarship!
He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and said: Fulton, do you believe in God? I replied: You know that I do. He said: I mean practically, not from a theoretical point of view. This time I was not so sure, and I said: Well, I hope I do. Then tear up the scholarship. Father Bergan, this scholarship entitles me to three years of university training with all expenses paid. It is worth about nine or ten thousand dollars. He retorted: You know you have a vocation; you should be going to the seminary. I countered with this proposal: I can go to the seminary after I get my Ph.D., because there will be little chance of getting a Ph.D. after I am ordained, and I would like very much to have a good education. He repeated: Tear up the scholarship; go to seminary. That is what the Lord wants you to do. And if you do it, trusting in Him, you will receive a far better university education after your are ordained than before. I tore up the scholarship and went to the seminary. I have never regretted that visit and that decision.
Sheen completed his theological studies both at St. Viator and at St. Pauls Seminary in Minnesota, and was ordained to the priesthood on September 20, 1919. Sheen writes, I can never remember a time in my life when I did not want to be a priest. Because of his excellence as a student, Sheen was sent to Catholic University to continue his studies, and it was there that he obtained his S.T.L and J.C.B. degrees. In September, 1921, he left for Louvain, Belgium for postgraduate work. Sheen recalls that he desired to learn two things: first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas. Upon completion of his Ph.D. in 1923, Sheen pursued an agrégé en Philosophie which he obtained in two years.
As Sheen was preparing to leave Louvain, he had standing offers to teach at Columbia and Oxford. Surprisingly, Bishop Dunne of Peoria, summoned him home where he was assigned as assistant pastor to a small parish in an area where even the streets were unpaved. On this occasion, Sheen found the opportunity to affirm his vow of obedience. After he had arrived in Illinois, in September of 1925, he continued to receive more teaching offers. Most appealing to him was the offer from Detroit to organize and head the philosophy department in the seminary. Sheen wrote to Bishop Dunne, asking permission. Dunne responded: No. God will provide. Obediently, Sheen involved himself wholeheartedly in parish work. Then, in late summer, 1926, Bishop Dunne phoned Sheen Three years ago I promised you to Bishop Shahan of The Catholic University as a member of the faculty. Sheen asked, Why did you not let me go there when I returned from Europe? The bishop responded, Because of the success you had on the other side, I just wanted to see if you would be obedient. So run along now; you have my blessing.
Sheen spent twenty-five years on the faculty at Catholic. Because of his brilliance, extra chairs had to be brought in to Sheens afternoon lectures to accommodate all of the students. There were those who believed that had he remained a classical philosopher, he would have been the St. Thomas of the twentieth century. Sheen maintained that evangelization is inseparable from professional teaching ever since the Word became flesh. Not even Eternal Wisdom could remain within the theological center of the Trinity, but He became a roaming Teacher, an itinerant Instructor. Sheen taught, wrote prolifically and undertook many engagements outside the sphere of academia.
In 1928, Sheen started his career in local radio from a Paulist Church in New York, just two years after his teaching appointment to Catholic University. He delivered the first radio message from Radio City, N.Y., on the day of its opening and was the first to host a regular series of religious radio broadcasts. In 1930, when NBC offered the U.S. bishops the opportunity to select a Catholic spokesman for a prime time national radio broadcast, Sheen was invited to preach The Catholic Hour and remained its star until he moved to television. The Catholic Hour was a regular 6 p.m. Sunday program. Because he relegated his topics to Catholic doctrine, several Catholic newspapers disapproved, recommending that his show be replaced by a more humorous perspective on Catholicism in keeping with the lighthearted tone of Amos n Andy which aired at the same time on weekdays. This opinion languished, however, when over a three month period, The Catholic Hour brought in seven hundred thousand letters.
In 1952, Sheen moved to television. His show, Life is Worth Living, was the first religious television show in New York when there were very few television sets in the entire city. Again, he was the first churchman to have a regular television program. Dumont Network placed Sheen in an obituary spot opposite two highly rated national shows: Mr. Television, Milton Berle, and Frank Sinatra. Sheen met with spectacular success and actually caused Berles ratings to drop. As a result, Sheen moved from Dumont to ABC for national hookup. In 1954, Sheen reached 25 million people; he had America before the television set. In 1955, Sheen was broadcast across one hundred seventy stations in the U.S. and seventeen in Canada. Mail generated from the television program averaged fifteen to twenty-five thousand letters per day. Even the president of the United States was among the letter writers. Sheen commented, Little did I know in those days that it would be given to me through radio and television to address a greater audience in half an hour than Paul in all the years of his missionary life.
From l95l to 1953, Sheen was paid $10,000 per telecast by Admiral Corporation. In successive seasons, Admiral paid $12,000 and $14,000 per appearance. In 1955, Sheen drew $16,500 per show. Sheen sent all these fees to the Propagation of the Faith for the poor overseas.
Sheen was well aware of the impact his television appearance had and was fastidious about the lighting and camera work. During the broadcast, Sheen spoke before a live audience of l l00 people and three cameras. He would speak uninterruptedly for twenty-seven minutes and twenty seconds without script, notes, or cue cards of any sort. He used no props except a blackboard. Sheen remarked that, radio is like the Old Testament, for it is the hearing of the Word without the seeing. Television is like the New Testament, for the Word is seen as it becomes flesh and dwells among us.
Life is Worth Living covered a diversity of subjects war, Stalin, psychiatry, psychology of Irish, Divine sense of humor.... Sheen approached the topics from the perspective of Christian humanism; his presentation was designed for people of all faiths and backgrounds. While his programs were not commercials for the Roman Catholic Church, his show was no religious Sesame Street. Sheen always made good use of his sharp sense of humor. Regarding his success, Sheen responded, The Lord once used an ass to ride into Jerusalem. Now he uses an ass on TV.
From 1930 to 1936, when communism was fashionable since Russia had sided with the allies against Hitler, Sheen was one of the few to speak out against communism. Unlike Senator Joseph McCarthy, Sheen attacked philosophies, not people. Sheen insisted that we must hate communism but love the Communist, as a doctor hates pneumonia in a sick child. Not surprising for a scholar of his caliber, Sheen read every line of Marx and Lenin. After studying the Russian constitution, Sheen remarked that the atheism of the Communist would be silly if there were really no God. It would be like Don Quixote tilting with imaginary windmills. In, Communism and the Conscience of the West, Sheen indicts communism but also points out evils of Western civilization out of which communism has grown. Because of Sheens influence, at one communist meeting, he was labeled Public Enemy No. 1. He was also visited while teaching by a high-level Soviet spy.
In 1950, Sheen was summoned to New York to head the national office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Churchs overseas mission. Under Sheens direction, donations soared; Americans contributed almost two-third of the entire world collection. Sheen oversaw 135,000 missionaries, 55,000 schools, 6,000 hospitals, 300 leper colonies, 1,300 orphanages and 700 homes for the aged. He founded a magazine called Mission to bring attention to the plight of the poor two-thirds of the world who go hungry. He also arranged a weekly syndicated column in every Catholic paper titled, God Loves You. From 1950 to 1966, Sheen sent $200 million overseas. He observed, We must become the Church of the poor, or else we will become the poor Church.
In May, l95l, Pius XII appointed Sheen titular bishop of Caesariana and auxiliary of New York under Cardinal Spellman. Sheen was ordained on June ll, 195l by Cardinal Piazza at Church of Sts. John and Paul in Rome. In October, 1966, Paul VI appointed Sheen Bishop of Rochester, N.Y. where he served for four years, resigning at the age of seventy-four.
It would be an understatement to say that Sheen was influenced by St. Thomas. Sheen sought to make St. Thomas functional, not for a school, but for a world. Sheen read through every single line that St. Thomas wrote at least once.
Two other authors who influenced Sheen were G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Sheen writes that Chesterton was one who never used a useless word, who saw the value of a paradox and avoided what was trite. From Chesterton, Sheen learned to pose powerful paradoxes. This is manifested in Sheens Life of Christ,
A dying man asked a dying man for eternal life. A man without possessions asked a poor man for a kingdom. A thief at the door of death asked to die like a thief and steal paradise. One would have thought a saint would have been the first soul purchased over the counter of Calvary by the red coins of Redemption. But in the Divine Plan, it was a thief who was the escort of the King of Kings into Paradise.
Another example appears in his description of Easter:
The law He gave us was clear: life is a struggle. Unless there is a cross in our lives, there will never be the empty tomb unless there is a crown of thorns, there will never be the halo of light unless there is a Good Friday, there will never be an Easter Sunday.
Again, in a talk, New Testament Revelation, Sheen cleverly contrasts two views on the Resurrection. Sheen points out that Jesus disciples did not expect the Resurrection but that those who denied him did. For instance, the women went to the tomb with spices for the Body. When Mary Magdalene met Jesus, she thought He was the gardener. When Mary Magdalene brought the Good News to the apostles, they did not believe her. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples had given up hope. On the other hand, the unbelievers sealed the tomb with a large stone and posted guards !
Sheen describes Lewis style as concrete, pedestrian, full of examples, analogies, parables and always interesting. Through Lewis, Sheen came to appreciate the power of images. By using rich images which captured an idea, Sheen was able to reach a large and terribly diverse audience all at once. Since all of Sheens work is pregnant with imagery, it is difficult to select only one example. His description of the Creation and the Fall illustrates his use of images and blossoms with poetry also.
God could not keep the secrets of His power, His wisdom and His love and in dropping the great universe from His creative finger tips, He hid therein the dim, distant far-off echoes of that oratory of the Word. Man, who was destined to gather up these broken syllables of the material universe into words of praise, and like the three youths in the fiery furnace to sing a living benedicite to God the Creator, soon forgot the Giver in his unholy love of the gift.
Another influence which afforded Sheen new insight was his travel and work for the missions. If a missionary were passing through, Sheen would always invite him to lunch. Hardly a day passed without our hearing the story of these heralds of the Gospel as they brought inspiration to my life and to my office and to my pen. In his autobiography, Sheen includes a whole chapter on the missions recounting the most engaging stories of missionaries. In his travels, Sheen was deeply impressed by the Holy Land and paths traced by St. Paul. With Cardinal Spellman, he traveled the world on a forty day tour preaching over two hundred times in: Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Pacific islands, Vietnam Korea, Southeast Asia.
One cannot spend fifteen or more years serving the under-developed nations and the poor of the world by begging for them without developing an entirely new point of view with regard to the world. I began to think less of the problem of poverty and more of the poor; less of the problem of crime and more of the criminal; less about age and more about service to a Stranger Who lives with all the slum dwellers who have no place to lay their heads.
What exerted the greatest influence in the life of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and has become his trademark is the Holy Hour. Sheen entitles one of the chapters in his autobiography, The Hour That Makes My Day. On the day of his ordination, Sheen resolved to spend one hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament every day of his life, and this he did faithfully. This nourishment served as the very root of his prayer life and vocation. He made a point to recommend it at all times, especially on retreats and even to Protestants.
First, the Holy Hour is not a devotion; it is a sharing in the work of redemption. Our Lord asked: Could you not watch one hour with Me?
I keep up the Holy Hour...to grow more and more into His Likeness.... Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain.... The purpose of the Holy Hour is to encourage deep personal encounter with Christ. The holy and glorious God is constantly inviting us to come to Him, to hold converse with Him, to ask for such things as we need and to experience what a blessing there is in fellowship with Him.
I have found that it takes some time to catch fire in prayer. This has been on of the advantages of the daily Hour. It is not so brief as to prevent the soul from collecting itself and shaking off the multitudinous distractions of the world. Sitting before the Presence is like a body exposing itself before the sun to absorb its rays. Silence in the Hour is a tête-à-tête with the Lord. In those moments, one does not so much pour out written prayers, but listening takes its place. We do not say: Listen Lord, for Thy servant speaks, but Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.
It is impossible for me to explain how helpful the Holy Hour has been in preserving my vocation.... Being tethered to a tabernacle, ones rope for finding other pastures is not so long. That dim tabernacle lamp, however pale and faint, had some mysterious luminosity to darken the brightness of bright lights. The Holy Hour became like an oxygen tank to revive the breath of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the foul and fetid atmosphere of the World. Even when it seemed so unprofitable and lacking in spiritual intimacy, I still had the sensation of being at least like a dog at the masters door, ready in case he called me.
Another strong influence in Sheens life was the Mother of God
Though Mary is the ideal Woman in every truly Christian life, I cannot express how real she has been in my life. As a mother carrying a child often feels the kicks of the young, so Mary has felt my rebellion, but still sought to form Christ in my soul as she formed Him in her womb.
It is not good for man to be alone. That verse of Genesis applies just as much to a priest as to the laity. There must be a Woman in the life of a priest. That Woman came into my life at birth. When I was baptized as an infant, my mother laid me on the altar of the Blessed Mother in St. Marys Church, El Paso, Illinois, and consecrated me to her. As an infant may be unconscious of a birthmark, so I was unconscious of the dedication but the mark was always there. Like a piece of iron to the magnet, I was drawn to her before I knew her, but never drawn to her without Christ. When I received my first Holy Communion at the age of twelve, I made the conscious dedication of myself to Mary. Though I cannot recall the exact words of my prayer, it was certainly similar to the motto which I chose for my coat of arms as bishop: Da per matrem me venire (Grant that I may come to Thee through Mary). My First Communion book with its mother-of-pearl cover contained the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, which I began reciting every night as a boy and have continued to this hour.
Sheen brought this appreciation of Our Lady to Vatican II
He mentions that one of the major defects he finds in world religions is the absence of the feminine.
Bishops were asked to send in recommendations before the Council and I wrote several Latin documents on the missions. I wonder if I was the only Conciliar Father who, before the Council, asked that there be a chapter on women. I had a strong conviction that the feminine principle in religion had been neglected. Many world religions were without the feminine principle and we were beginning to live in an age when women were coming into their own. I still feel that it would have been well to have included a chapter on women it certainly was far more important than tourism!
While Sheen exerted strong pastoral influence on the globe as a writer, teacher and administrator, his greatest impact came through his preaching both in person and through radio and television. His rule for apostolate was: Everything is done by God and nothing is done without us. Sheens love for God and neighbor and his understanding of the human mind and heart make him relevant to our time. In humble obedience to God, Sheen offered his whole person. God used Sheens burning desire to preach and his penetrating insight into the right order of things to draw souls to Himself. In this way, Sheen offers an example to all preachers of our day.
Sheen exhibited utter dedication to the dynamism of learning. His effort to follow the challenging advice of Cardinal Mercier reveals Sheens superior intellect and discipline. At Sheens request, Cardinal Mercier offered two suggestions:
Always keep current: know what the modern world is thinking about; read its poetry, it history, its literature; observe its architecture and its art; hear its music and its theater; and then plunge deeply into St. Thomas and the wisdom of the ancients and you will be able to refute its errors. The second suggestion: tear up your notes at the end of each year. There is nothing that so much destroys the intellectual growth of a teacher as the keeping of notes and the repetition of the same course the following year.
Sheen even went a step further and resolved never to repeat a course. Every summer he went to London to study and prepare for the new course. He spent six hours in preparation for every single hour of lecture in class. Sheen warned that it is very easy for a professor to turn into a kind of dried-up intellectual without constant stimulation and study.
Sheens preparation for preaching showed tremendous care, effort and perseverance. His preparation for preaching followed the extraordinary method of his teaching. He found that lecturing was a good preparation for radio and television. His preparation for preaching even dwarfed the superhuman discipline he showed for teaching. For each half-hour telecast, he prepared for about thirty hours, yielding an hours worth of material. Though he would forget this or that point which he intended to deliver, he could draw on the store of accumulated information to take its place. To clarify the subject in his mind, Sheen would deliver the talk in French and Italian to a staff member and a professor a few days before the show.
Preaching and lecturing are impossible without much studying and reading. This perhaps is one of the weaknesses of the modern pulpit and lecture platform the neglect of a continuing education.... When the intellectual larder is empty, it is difficult to prepare a homiletic meal. The higher the building, the more materials have to go into it. one need never fear of exhausting material if there is serious study.
Sheens first rule for teaching, preaching and giving retreats was ...never sit. Fires cannot be started seated. If the students would have to stand for my lectures, I ought to stand for them. Sheen never used notes except when required to produce a text for the radio show, Catholic Hour. He believed that a preacher who uses notes is about as effective as a man proposing to a girl from a notebook. Sheen recounts a remark he once heard from an old Irish lady concerning a bishop who was reading a speech: Glory be to God, if he cant remember it, how does he expect us to? In preparing, Sheen would first research and arrange the research into a few clear points. Then, he would learn it from the inside out, not from the outside in. Rather than read over the notes from his research, I would write out from memory my recollection of the points. Then I would check with the research to see how well I had absorbed the points. That paper on which I had first summarized the lecture would be torn up. one new plan after another would be drawn up and destroyed. I would repeat the process over and over again.... He repeated this process so that he was not allowing a piece of paper to dictate to his living mind.
As a mother cannot forget the child of her womb, so a speaker cannot forget the child of his brain. Why should a living mind bow down in subjection to research notes? What is so sacred about notes except their accuracy? But the Mind can absorb that accuracy.
The result of this effort was that the material was his. It was like digested food, not food on the shelf. That was the reason I never used notes for a lecture or a sermon. Sheen may, in fact, be said to have advanced a rhetorical theory of his own. When he was chaplain to an orphanage while teaching at Catholic University, Sheen used to rise at 5 a.m. and walk to the orphanage preaching aloud to trees and telephone poles. He developed terrific voice control, ranging from a spine-tingling whisper to an Old Testament fury. Sheen rooted his preaching first and foremost in Scripture and commentaries on Scripture. He was very deliberate in preparing in the presence of the Lord.
All my sermons are prepared in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. When the general plan of the sermon has been formulated, I will then talk my thoughts to Our Lord, or at least meditate on it, almost whispering the ideas. It is amazing how quickly one discovers the value of the proposed sermon.
Sheen recognized the importance of the end of a speech
To me the conclusion of a talk must be strong, inspiring and elevating and I would spend almost as much time on it as on many points in the lecture. as the comedians say: It is very easy to get on the stage, but it is hard to get off. I guess the best lecturers are always those about whom the audience says: I wish he had talked longer.
He observed this principle in his television broadcast
Always know where you are going to end. It may be a paragraph or a sentence, but know how long its going to take to say it. Then watch the clock. When theres just enough time for the conclusion say it, and youve finished on time.
Like all great preachers, Sheen always addressed himself to the thought of the times, and insisted that a speaker must begin his message from where his hearers are, not where he is. In his work on television, Sheen thoroughly comprehended the situation of the preacher, the situation of the audience and the medium of preaching. In addition, he had keen insight into human nature. He also reflected on his preaching, observing the results in this case, noting success.
When I began television nationally and on a commercial basis, the approach had to be different. I was no longer talking in the name of the Church and under the sponsorship of the bishops. The new method had to be more ecumenical and directed to Catholics, Protestants, Jews and all men of good will. It was no longer a direct presentation of Christian doctrine but rather a reasoned approach to it beginning with something that was common to the audience. Hence, during those television years, the subjects ranged from communism, to art, to science, to humor, aviation, war, etc. Starting with something that was common to the audience and to me, I would gradually proceed from the known to the unknown or to the moral and Christian philosophy. It was the same method Our Blessed Lord used when He met a prostitute at the well. What was there in common between Divine Purity and this woman who had five husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband? The only common denominator was a love of cold water. Starting with that He led to the subject of the waters of everlasting life.
This was the same method used by St. Paul at Athens when the only common denominator he could find between himself and those who had lined the streets of the Acropolis with their gods was an inscription on one of them to the Unknown God. From there he went to the concept of the true God. That was the way I tried to reach the vast television audience of America. And it worked.
Sheen did not believe that the medium was the message.
Rather, his thesis was: if you want people to stay as they are, tell them what they want to hear. If you want to improve them, you tell them what they should know.
Sheen evangelized according to the motto: Win an argument, and lose a soul. He observed, oftentimes what appears to be a doctrinal objection against the Faith turns out to be a moral objection. Most people basically do not have trouble with the Creed, but with the commandments.
Sheen understood the need for personal touch and humor. He personally answered as many of the thousands of letters he daily received as he could. Sheen was also sensitive to the mind of the audience. He urges that a speaker should begin with a humorous story to give the audience a chance to look your over.
An audience, I also learned, does not like to be made to feel inferior to the speaker. That is why a story in which the speaker is humbled gives them a feeling of equality.
Addressing inmates at a high-security prison, Sheen began, Gentlemen, there is one great difference between you and me. you have been caught; I was not. In other words, we are all sinners. Sheen realized that if an audience perceives that they were being held in contempt, the message is lost. A strong challenge has to be offered in compassion. Sheen also realized that forced humor only detracts from the message.
This would not be a humorous story for the sake of the humorous story, but would arise out of the lecture itself. He suggests that humor should be used again at one or two points in the lecture to change the mood, relieve the tension and give the audience an opportunity to relax.
Sheen had a wide but unified vision of humanity. He had a missionary zeal to preach because he loved people who are many, and he loved the Truth Who is One. Sheen observes: Someday Buddha and Confucius may be to the Eastern Catholic theology what Plato and Aristotle were to St. Thomas and Augustine.
The combination of travel, the study of world religions and personal encounter with different nationalities and peoples made me see that the fullness of truth is like a complete circle of 360 degrees. Every religion in the world has a segment of that truth.
Serving the missions makes one sick at heart if anyone is left out of the ark of salvation. A blind boy at Lourdes was cured during the Way of the Cross as his father asked God to restore his sons sight. The first words of the boy as he saw his father and others were: Everybodys here! That will be the missionarys cry at Judgment when he sees his flock and is overwhelmed by the goodness of God. Everybody is here who wanted to be here.
Travel merely confirms the teaching of theology that humanity is one.
Fulton Sheen preached for the salvation of souls. A priest never touches reality until he touches a soul.
The psychology and the theology of conversion have always been one of the major interests of my life.... I believe on the last day God is going to ask priests, Where are your children? God hates spiritual sterility. And when we come before Him for judgment, we will have to represent the soul we have saved. Im only trying to save my soul. I know one way to do it, save others.
Sheen includes a whole chapter in his autobiography recounting poignant and dramatic conversions in which he was involved only as a porter who opens the door. Sheen was effective in converting hearts because he understood the philosophical and theological problems of the day. He understood his own role as a preacher and the role of the Church in addressing world problems. When he was assigned to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, he notes: The Church was beginning to sense a conflict between divine salvation and human liberation, between working for personal salvation of those in a parish or in a community and having a concern about their social welfare.... In the sixties, in particular, youth developed a passionate interest for social justice in restricted areas, but they showed very little concern for individual justice, that is to say, their own relationship to their parents and God.
The Vatican Council was held at that period of history when it was necessary to strike a balance between two extremes both in the world and in the Church: individualism and socialism.
There is a tremendous potential for sacrifice among the young in this country. The young people are rebelling against the bourgeois ethos of their parents, who believed in the American way of life, which judged prosperity by material achievements. But one thing that their parents never asked themselves was what they would do with themselves after they had bettered their condition. Equally important, through his faithful prayer and study, Sheen had insight into the answer to the problems.
God never intended that individual and social justice should be separated...
Rather, God intended that Christian salvation has both an earthly and a historical dimension; that the conversion of a single soul may not be alienated from the promotion of human rights as required by the Gospel, and which is central to our ministry; that soul-winning and society-saving are the concave and convex side of the love of God and love of neighbor; that in addition to begetting children of God through evangelization, we have to give the witness of fraternal love in a sensitiveness toward humanitys desire for freedom and justice; that as Christ is both divine and human, so the mission of every Christian is to be transcendent in lifting eyes to Heaven but also imminent in the care of the way he lives on earth....
Sheen never failed to realize that Christ Himself is the answer to human problems.
When Goethes devil started translating the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, he hesitated because he could not subscribe to the primacy of the Word of God. So he wrote instead: In the beginning was action. I believe that John Paul II is healing this divorce of things that God willed should be kept together.
It is easy to proclaim the Divinity of Christ from a pulpit, but hard to see the same Christ when He sends a cross.... To make Christ out to be a moral teacher, a social activist, a defender of the poor is so satisfying to social instincts; but to see in Him a Saviour Who takes on the burden of the worlds guilt and Who says: Take up your cross is a frightening specter.
The longer I live the more I become convinced that in the face of injustices we must begin to say I love. Kind deeds are not enough. We must learn to say I forgive.
Sheen was effective because he relied on the Holy Spirit. He understood Who had the power to convict hearts. On television, I depended more on the grace of God and less on myself.... The illumination that fell on any soul was more of the Spirit and less of Sheen. An example of this was a telecast on the death of Stalin. About ten days before Stalin died I spoke about his death as if it were actually happening.... After a lecture..., I met a woman who told me that she became a convert after hearing one of my telecasts. I was very anxious to discover which one it was that so influenced her. To my surprise, it was the telecast on Stalin. There was absolutely nothing in that telecast that would draw a soul to the Church. God just used it as an instrument. Paul plants, Apollo waters, but God gives the increase.
Sheen recognizes the necessity of Gods action in the preachers work and the importance of calling the Lord. The preacher cannot call from a distance but form an intimate friendship.
I have often been asked how to prepare sermons, and I can only speak of my own experiences after a long life of preaching. All my sermons are prepared in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. As recreation is most pleasant and profitable in the sun, so homiletic creativity is best nourished before the Eucharist. The most brilliant ideas come from meeting God face to face. The Holy Spirit which presided at the Incarnation is the best atmosphere for illumination. Pope John Paul II keeps a small desk or writing pad near him whenever he is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; and I have done this all my life I am sure for the same reason he does, because a lover always works better when the Beloved is with him. In this intimate relationship, God forms the preacher.
The purpose of the Holy Hour is to encourage deep personal encounter with Christ.... Neither theological knowledge nor social action alone is enough to keep us in love with Christ unless both are preceded by a personal encounter with Him.
Faithful obedience and docility in prayer guarantees that the preacher will bear fruit, for the Will of God is invincible. Even when it seemed so unprofitable and lacking in spiritual intimacy, I still had the sensation of being at least like a dog at the masters door, ready in case he called me.
Sheen recognized that he was only an instrument: I could no more make someone else a Christian by my own influence than I could turn a sawdust doll into a pretty little child of six.
Sheen was careful to learn from his experience and the experience of others. He took a lesson from Pauls failure in Athens.
[While Sheen was in Athens] Every night I went to Mars Hill and reread that famous speech of St. Paul in chapter 17 of Acts. From the point of view of rhetoric and pedagogy it was a perfect speech. First, he began with a tribute that was to win their souls. Paul spoke of how God made the universe, was the Lord of Heaven and earth, did not dwell in temples made with hands (such as the beautiful one he was looking on); that He made of one blood every nation of men that dwelled upon the faced of the earth, fixing the limits and extent of their habitation, and inspiring them to seek God even though they might be groping in the darkness. God, Paul said, was not far from any one of them. As the poet put it, We are all His offspring. Paul then jumped to the subject of Judgment and Resurrection....
Yet, Sheen observes, the talk was not a success. It was rather one of Pauls great failures.... He never went back to Athens, never wrote a letter to the Athenians, and there is no record that he established a church in Athens.
As the Damascus scene impressed on my early priesthood the continuity of Christ through history in His Body which is the Church, so the Athens scene taught me that the central theme of all our preaching must be Christ and Him crucified. With this strong spiritual formation, Sheen had the courage to challenge his listeners and the wisdom to know how.
One state university which I visited presented a problem. The president of the university met me at the airport and told me that the day before the students had burned down two buildings. He said: I came to tell you that you need not give the lecture; I am afraid that something rash may happen. I have invited the board of trustees to sit on the stage with you, but they can offer no protection.
I told him that I would give the lecture. I forgot about the topic that I had chosen, but inasmuch as there was a difficulty in the university, I decided to talk on another subject. About ten thousand students showed up and I talked on chastity for about an hour in a way that the students could understand. At the end, they stood up and applauded and cheered and came to the platform to meet me.
The president of the university said: I have been here twenty years, and this is the first time I have ever seen an incident of this kind. What is so different? I asked. Well, he said, other speakers come and take sides black against white, yellow against green, blue against pink; or else they tell the students that their parents and the university governments are wrong. He said: You challenged them; and challenged them with something they had never heard before and they are looking for a challenge
Because of his intense preparation and abject openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Sheens preaching convicted peoples hearts.
His presentation of the fullness of the Catholic faith was powerful and convincing. One of his converts spoke for all of them and summed up this gift of his at the finish of an instruction by leaping to her feet and, with clenched fists, shouting heavenward: O God, what a protagonist you have in this man! Sheen understood man and trusted in God. As a resulted he was effective.
So many wrote to me expressing interest in the Church or searching for the gift of faith that I began instruction in large school halls, such as St. Patricks in Washington, D.C., and St. Stephens in the same city, as well as in Cathedral High School in New York City. There would be an average attendance of between fifty and one hundred who would eventually become members of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The clarity of insight in Sheens practical advice makes him relevant to all ages. He communicated the saving Word to sinners in a powerful and uplifting way. Sheen preached the joy he knew in Christ.
I beg Him every day to keep me strong physically and alert mentally in order to preach His Gospel and proclaim His Cross and Resurrection. I am so happy doing this that I sometimes feel that when I come to the Good Lord in Heaven, I will take a few days rest and then ask Him to allow me to come back again to this earth to do some more work.
For Sheen, life meant Christ. Regarding his autobiography, he writes: Let it be said here at the beginning that this is not my real autobiography. That was written twenty-one centuries ago, published and placarded in three languages, and made available to everyone in Western civilization. Carlyle was wrong in saying that there is no life of a man faithfully recorded. Mine was! The ink used was blood, the parchment was skin, the pen was a spear.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen shows the world what it means to be a preacher. In the words of a man who dealt with Sheen in the missions, For Christs sake, hes another Jesus.
Ku, Rev. John Baptist, O.P. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: master preacher, master of the air waves. Media Ecclesiae (Fall 1994).
Reprinted with permission of The National Institute for the Word of God and Father Ku.
Copyright © 1994
The National Institute
for the Word of God
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